The First Sunday after Christmas
Peter Paul Rubens, Massacre of the Innocents, 1610-1612. Public Domain
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service are available at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos basados en el leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé.
A psalm of thanksgiving for God's salvation (in context, deliverance from exile).
Psalm 148 (UMH 861).
If you want to sing the psalm and bring some challenge and electricity to the Psalter, consider singing it to Tone 3 in E-flat major (see UMH 737 and the accompanist edition).
Why God became flesh in Jesus Christ: to be made perfect through suffering, to deliver us from the devil and the fear of death, to understand our lot completely, to be a merciful priest, and to make a perfect atonement for our sins.
Matthew recounts the deliverance of Jesus (escape of the family to Egypt) and the slaughter of innocent male children by King Herod.
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It is still Christmas Season! We are still unpacking the major Christmas themes of Mystery, Martyrs and Magnificat. Keep singing Christmas hymns. Today you may want to focus on hymns in a minor key, hymns that acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and hymns that focus more on God’s decisive intervention on our behalf.
We experience all three in today’s texts. There is mystery in how God delivers the holy family through dreams and visions, and there is both mystery and martyrdom in the depths of human evil and the lives of innocent victims. Our texts from Isaiah, Psalm 148, and Hebrews are mystery and magnificat rolled into one.
Live into these texts with your worship planning team, listen for the echoes and cries of them in your congregation and community, and plan for worship today that is as rich as you can make it with whatever people and gifts may be available.
December 31 is New Year’s Eve/Watchnight/Feast of the Holy Name.
January 6 is Epiphany.
This season is also marked in some African-American communities by Kwanzaa, and in some Spanish language communities by Las Posadas (Book of Worship, 266-268 and 281-284).
Coming up in January on the UM Program Calendar
Human Trafficking Awareness Day (UMW Resources)
Ecumenical Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Human Relations Day
Martin Luther King Birthday
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While many Christmas songs speak much of a sleeping baby Jesus, equating heavenly peace with a baby’s sleep, the texts for today do not do so at all.
The readings for this first Sunday after Christmas focus on the shadow of the Incarnation, the messy and painful side of the mystery of God with us in Jesus Christ. We gratefully acknowledge God’s salvation and deliverance (Isaiah and Psalm), but even here we acknowledge the suffering that necessitated such deliverance in the first place. The readings from Hebrews and Matthew remind of the other costs and consequences for Jesus and among us. Jesus was made perfect, Hebrews reminds, not as a “perfect, innocent little baby” but rather through what he suffered. It was through suffering with us that he could become for us a merciful high priest. It was through dying as one of us that he could conquer death and Satan. And it was through all of that, and only through that, that he could make atonement for our sins.
But in order to do any of that, he had to survive his infancy. The reading from Matthew today reveals the painful cost to the families with infants and young children (toddlers) in the region around Bethlehem. Matthew’s telling of the story does not dodge the pain. He leads the readers and hearers squarely into it. He reminds his readers of a lament song from the days of the exile and the genocidal slaughters accompanying it in the midst in a way that invites the readers to feel and join the lament. We have here an early instance of what Jesus would later teach: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are seizing it by force” (Matthew 11:12).
When God takes on human flesh, the consequences are neither safe nor merely benign for God or for us. Safety and security were not the point. The point was precisely to be among us, to be fully in solidarity with all who suffer from the power of sin and death. By this means, God effects both an ultimate reconciliation with us and an ultimate war among us about the powers that shall prevail. We as the reconciled are empowered to engage the struggle with sin and death as Jesus did, by suffering from both, even as we are being delivered from them, and by acting as witnesses to the One whose kingdom overcomes them in us and in the world.
We proclaim our citizenship and allegiance to God’s reign in our baptismal vows, first by acts of renunciation of allegiance to the powers of this world that enslave and mangle the world, and then by a declaration of our pledge -- as Christ’s representatives in the world-- to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Imagery and quotes from the baptismal covenant would be potent and powerful symbols and reminders in the worship space today.
In Your Planning Team
Keep thinking series. Keep weaving the common threads your team has identified through all the services, fellowship events, or mission activities you plan and pursue this Christmas Season. And then in connection with those threads, pull out and focus on today’s “pearl.”
There are two stories side by side here. How you handle today may depend on how you handled yesterday (Feast of the Holy Innocents, December 28). If you focused on the Innocents yesterday, today may lead you to focus more on the nature of God’s power to preserve God’s kingdom in the face of the worst human paranoia and violence can offer. If you did not observe Holy Innocents in any way yesterday, you may have a “twin pearl” today—both the extreme violence with which we respond to God’s kingdom and God’s persevering and preserving power.
Both the violence and the way God preserves Jesus, through something as seemingly ephemeral as dreams, may feel out of place during Christmas Season. Yet these stories have always been at its heart since Christmas was formed as a season. God coming among us, God’s kingdom arriving, is no “benign” thing. It threatens, undercuts, and overrules every human authority. This is why Herod’s response was so violent, not simply because he was a madman. This is also why God’s way to preserve Jesus was invisible and inconspicuous to all but Joseph. Only Joseph has the dream that leads the family to Egypt. Only Joseph sees and hears the angel, and that too in a dream, telling him it is safe to return to his homeland. The Almighty brings about salvation for the universe in the strangest and seemingly least reliable of ways.
Do you or your team know people with a story to tell either about violence erupting to block God’s kingdom, or guidance for deliverance in the midst of extreme danger coming in seemingly strange ways? Where have you, or people in your worshiping community or wider community, experienced opportunities to offer solidarity with others who have suffered traumatic violence—perhaps from war, or genocide, or bullying, or street wars, or drunk driving, or the rages of a domestic partner?
Share your stories, or go talk to these persons who have them, and invite them to share them in some way in worship today.
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Old Hymns for Today
Here are several hymns not in current hymnals and all in the public domain that would be appropriate for the day. See the list of Long Meter and Common Meter tunes on pages 926-927 of The United Methodist Hymnal for tunes more familiar to your congregation.
This first, from a fifth century text, could follow the gospel reading.
All hail, you infant martyrs' flow'rs,'
Cut off in life's first dawning hours
As rosebuds, snapt in tempest strife
When Herod sought the Savior's life.
O tender flock of Christ, we sing
Of victims slain for Christ the King
Oppression's loud lament we raise,
Then join the martyrs song of praise:
All honor, laud, and glory be,
O Jesus, Virgin-born, to thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Parent and to Paraclete.
(Prudentius, 5th century, alt.)
The next two, both by Charles Wesley, could be opening hymns or responses to the reading from Isaiah or a sequence hymn between the Epistle and the Gospel.
Sing, all in heaven, at Jesus' birth
Glory to God, and peace on earth:
Incarnate love in Christ is seen,
Pure mercy and good-will to all.
Praise him, extolled above all height,
Who doth in worthless worms delight:
God reconciled in Christ confess
Your present and eternal peace.
From Jesus, manifest below,
Rivers of pure salvation flow,
And pour on our distinguished race
Their everlasting streams of grace.
Sing, every soul of Adam’s line,
The fav’rite attribute Dicine,
Ascribing, with the hosts above,
All glory to the God of love.
Father, our hearts we lift
Up to thy gracious throne,
And thank thee for the precious gift
Of thine incarnate Son!
The gift unspeakable
We thankfully receive,
And to the world thy goodness tell,
And to thy glory live.
Jesus, the holy child,
Doth, by his birth, declare
That God and we are reconciled,
And one in him we are.
A peace on earth he brings,
Which never more shall end:
The Lord of hosts, the King of kings,
Declares himself our friend.
His kingdom from above
He doth to us impart,
And pure benevolence and love
O’erflow the faithful heart.
Changed in a moment, we
The sweet attraction find,
With open arms of charity,
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Sung Call to Worship
- BOW 213, "Christ Is Born" (Isaiah, Psalm)
- UMH 223, stanza 1, "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" (Hebrews)
- BOW 248 (Can be rewritten in present tense for Christmas season) (Psalm)
- BOW 275 (Isaiah)
Holy Innocents collect:
Sovereign Lord, who keeps our tears in a bottle and records our laments in your book:
gather into your arms of mercy all innocent victims and beat back the machinations of tyrants,
for the sake of Christ our Savior who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.
Refuge and Redeemer, when the rage and darkness of the world come with senseless wasting of lives,
you make victims your dearest prize and enable us to see their feet standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Amen.
Both of these collects are copyright © 1995 by The Order of Saint Luke and are published in
For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists, ed. by C. F. Guthrie. Used by permission.
BOW 278 (Isaiah, Psalm, Hebrews)
BOW 313 (Matthew)
Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories including Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, The Palestinian Authority, Syria
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
BOW 279 (Matthew)
UMH 140, Great is Thy Faithfulness (Isaiah)
Dismissal with Blessing
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